Your Government at Work: Documerica Chronicles 1970s America


The mandate for Documerica was intriguingly broad — “photographically document subjects of environmental concern” — and photographers responded with striking images covering everything from pot-smoking form to toxic smog.

The Environmental Protection Agency launched the Documerica project in 1971 as a way to assess the environmental state of the nation. For five years, more than 70 photographers went around the country capturing our grand mess of national character: greased-pig contests, “no gas” signs, sewage plants, coal miners at work, Jesse Jackson preaching up a storm.

"Two Girls Smoking Pot During an Outing in Cedar Woods near Leakey, Texas," by Marc  St. Gil

“Two Girls Smoking Pot During an Outing in Cedar Woods near Leakey, Texas,” by Marc St. Gil


“Miners Line Up to Go Into the Elevator Shaft at the Virginia-Pocahontas Coal Company Mine #4 near Richlands, Virginia,” by Jack Corn

"Smog Hangs Over Louisville And Ohio River, September 1972," by William Strode

“Smog Hangs Over Louisville And Ohio River, September 1972,” by William Strode

"Water cooling towers of the John Amos Power Plant loom over Poca, WV, home..." by Harry Schaefer

“Water cooling towers of the John Amos Power Plant loom over Poca, WV, home…” by Harry Schaefer

"Michigan Avenue, Chicago" (couple on street)," by Perry Riddle

“Michigan Avenue, Chicago” (couple on street),” by Perry Riddle

"Harvesting a Palo Verde Valley wheat field..." by Charles O'Rear

“Harvesting a Palo Verde Valley wheat field…” by Charles O’Rear

"A Small Park on Sheepshead Bay," by Arthur Tress

“A Small Park on Sheepshead Bay,” by Arthur Tress

The resulting work made the rounds at the time and then moldered in the National Archives for several decades. After a heroic effort to scan more than 15,000 color transparencies and  B&W negatives, however, the collection is now out for world to enjoy.

Thousands of the images are gathered in a Flickr gallery, and the National Archives is hosting a physical exhibit through September. If you lived through the 1970s, the images will provide endless opportunity for nostalgic reverie mixed with “What the hell were we thinking?” moments.

If you’re too young to have been there, well…a lot of it made sense at the time.

Image credits: Header photograph is “Interior of Graffiti-Marked Subway Car” by Erik Calonius. All images courtesy the National Archives/EPA

  • Michael Spotts

    Very fascinating. Thanks.

  • OldTimer

    Wow, we’ve got wedding pictures from that time period, and we fit right in. The guys were once described as “The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers” :-)

  • kb

    PetaPixel: What’s with the [another uninteresting]reader poll box laying over the Schaefer Power Plant image with no way to remove it from my computer’s display?
    If you don’t want to be thought of as a visual garbage can, may I suggest that you don’t do this again.

  • Michael Zhang

    That power plant photo was mistakenly uploaded in a size that’s too big for this site’s layout. Sorry about that!